As a woman on the brink of turning forty, I have recently done some serious soul-searching. I know what you're thinking, and no I didn't freak out, dye my hair blue and get a nose ring to prove that I'm still young and "hip", because I'm quite clearly neither of those things, I accept that. However, what I did find myself questioning is, after thirty-nine years of life, why were there so few moments in amongst the mix of school, work, family and friends that I actually felt truly happy?
Truth is, I've had every reason in the world to be, at the very least, moderately happy. Sure I've had my share of challenges, but I've always had a strong support network of a hard-working, middle-class family and I've never really had much difficulty making friends. As a chubby adolescent with glasses and braces, I underwent the normal amount of teasing from classmates and siblings, but nothing close enough to seriously damage my self-esteem. In school, I was an above-average student, even when I wasn't applying myself, and once I became a part of the workforce I didn't have much difficulty finding and retaining employment. I've always been able to fit in to my environment with considerable ease, yet when I look back I realize that most of that time, regardless of where I was or what I was doing, I was, for the most part, largely unhappy, and always, without exception, incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin.
Until recently, I never considered myself a perfectionist; in fact, most times I considered myself the complete opposite. I'm a huge procrastinator, I struggle with self-discipline, and even though I work hard, it's usually on the wrong things, or perhaps I should say, the "easy" things. I was never prepared to tackle the hard stuff, so instead of taking risks on the opportunities that might have made me happy, I opted instead for the pragmatic approach that was "safe" but offered little meaningful reward.
Over time I began to notice my tendency for perfectionism in certain areas, with the things that I did manage to do, so I gave 100% effort. I've always had a pretty strong work ethic and regardless of my job I took pride in my ability to do it well, but I was never prepared to take on a task or a project if I thought I couldn't execute a perfect outcome. Even when it came to household chores like cleaning the kitchen, I would never start unless I knew I could finish. It was either all or nothing, never anything in-between. If I was going to try at anything, I wasn't prepared to settle for anything less than perfect. So when I asked myself, "Why have I been so unwilling to try doing what makes me happy?" the answer was easy, "If I don't try, then I can't fall short of my own expectations".
For as long as I can remember, I've labelled myself as an "aspiring writer", yet I've been hesitant to actually write anything of any real significance. I always seemed to self-sabotage by downplaying what modicum of ability I did have by saying: "there are so many people who can write so much better than I ever could. If I can't be the best, then what's the point?". I have spent years developing my craft by reading books and taking writing classes, but have stopped short of actually applying what I've learnt. I've become a stockpile of information, but without anything tangible to show for it.
If you'll allow me to postulate for a moment, it could be argued that the same drive for perfectionism could also be applied to my lifelong internal battle with my physical appearance. I have never been able to fully accept myself, and in fact, most of my life I have spent intensely focused on my myriad of flaws. It was so discouraging to me that, even when I was looking my absolute best, there were still so many women who were so much prettier than I was and my "best" always seemed to fall so short in comparison. Eventually I concluded that it was easier to be apathetic about my appearance and not even try, because as long as I wasn't trying, I didn't have to feel inferior to other women, even though I almost always still did.
I know I am not alone in this. Whether we mean to or not, we as women, size each other up by how we look, and how we compare to each other. For gals like myself who tend to fall back on our wits and self-deprecating humour, there is no bigger blow to one's self esteem than a beautiful woman who's funny or has something intelligent to say. Rather than embracing our sisterhood and our connection to each other, we view each other as inherent threats or potential competition. We see only our flaws and our shortcomings, completely missing out on recognizing that it's our perceived 'imperfections' that make us interesting and unique.
It's so easy to fall into the mental trap of believing that, if we don't come in a perfect package, if we occasionally say or do the wrong thing or if we try our best and fail, this lessens our personal value. In my case, I've been reticent to even try because my self-worth has been firmly hinged on my ability to avoid failure.
As a recovering perfectionist, I am learning that true happiness can only be found by accepting myself, flaws and all. As long as my self-worth is dependent on my being "perfect", true and lasting happiness will remain infinitely unattainable. However, if I'm willing to take a risk and give life my best shot, it may not turn out perfectly, and I may incur some bumps and bruises along the way, but at the very least it will be an interesting ride.
"You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful." - Amy Bloom